The songs that saved your life, pt. II

Before I begin, a brief thought: what can I say about the finale of Mad Men, beginning tonight at 10:00 p.m. EST, that hasn’t been said?

Nothing. Glad I got that out of my system.

You know the rules, assuming you’ve read the first half of this list. You can also click here for the full playlist. Thanks for the positive response to the first 18 tracks!

19. Rusholme RuffiansThe Smiths
My friend and college roommate Dustin, whose taste in music, writing, and intellect far outstrip my own, delightfully told me that there wasn’t a single “bum track” on this list. I’ve immediately ameliorated that, because he hates Morrissey. Straight-up Robert Smith hates Morrissey. (The irony that I ended the first part of the list with The Cure and began this one with The Smiths isn’t lost on me – heck, I planned it.)

I grew up in Lebanon County, where late spring brought the fair to town annually. Lebanon is a small place, so the Lebanon County Fair was a small-time affair, which is to say it was way better than other far-more-sizable local fairs (looking at you, York) – maybe I read Something Wicked This Way Comes once too many as a kid, but I always got the sense that the carnies, and probably the rides, had a screw or two dangerously loose. The characters in this track are likewise twisted – a potentially suicidal schoolgirl; a woman intentionally flashing a bit too much skin on a waltzer (pleasure you can’t measure, for certain!); hooligans using knives and fists to bloody one another – and, although the narrator walks home alone without a-one of them accompanying him, he repeats his refrain – “My faith in love is still devout!” (See? He isn’t always the Pope of Mope.)

Meat is Murder is often looked at as the weak(est) spot in The Smiths’ brief (four studio albums) run, but it’s not without its significant charms, like this track, which borrows generously from Elvis Presley’s “Marie’s The Name (His Latest Flame).” On The Smiths’ sole live album, Rank, the band plays a few bars of Elvis’ hit before launching into the song on this list.

(Of course, I borrowed the titles of these last two blog posts from The Smiths.)

20. Take it Easy (Love Nothing)Bright Eyes
Funny, I’m pretty sure Dustin hates Conor Oberst too. I’m 0-for-2.

Bright Eyes released two records – Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (from which this track comes) and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning on the same day. (He should have named them Use Your Emotion 1 and Use Your Emotion 2, but we all make mistakes.) One was critically acclaimed; the other, not so much. “Take it Easy (Love Nothing)” is from the lesser of the two records, which I’ve always preferred because my taste is poor. The fingerprint of album collaborator Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel and The Postal Service is heavy on some tracks, and one wonders if he thought lightning would strike twice by collaborating with another popular indie sad sack. (It didn’t.)

This sweaty, sexy, sticky bacchanal that marries chugging guitars with Tamborello’s signature bleeps and bloops is loads of fun, if a bit mean-spirited at the end. But the title instructs us to love nothing, so who cares if it’s not perfect? Not to mention it succinctly sums up one of my favorite springtime events:

“Oh, that weather man’s a liar. He said it’d be raining. But it’s clear and blue as far as I can see.”

21. Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?Peter Sarstedt
Unlike the last track, this one is perfect. To say more would be a disservice.

22. Sheena is a Punk RockerThe Ramones
I never got a chance to see The Ramones – they broke up when I was 10 – but I did have the pleasure of seeing Marky Ramone and Andrew W.K. perform a few of The Ramones’ hits in Philadelphia before some gigantic, 300-pound skinhead launched himself into my twin brother‘s head and broke his nose. (It was a bit apropos.)

Progenitors of punk rock, The Ramones’ unparalleled élan vital gave many pause, even though they weren’t caustically self-destructive like The Sex Pistols or politically combative like The Clash. They were merely interested in writing and playing muscular pop songs at breakneck speed. Four chords, scant lyrics, and a hefty dose of staccato reiteration reinforces the blunt force trauma of “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” which is interested in very little other than getting your blood pumping and your bottom moving.

23. Going to Georgia – The Mountain Goats
Even when it wasn’t clear that John Darnielle – The Mountain Goats’ singer, songwriter, and sole permanent member – was going anywhere in terms of a music career, he took his fans everywhere with him in a series of songs with titles like “Going to Lebanon,” “Going to Bolivia,” “Going to Kansas,” and, in this track, to Georgia.

The song (it was recorded on a cassette player, if memory serves) is so low-fidelity that even Justin Vernon can’t make it through its 2:15 running time, but unlike The Ramones’ charmingly stupid tautology, Darnielle has a way of absolutely stuffing each word with meaning – appreciating the language of emotion every bit as much as the language of language itself. Here’s a guy who likes hearing himself talk: “The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway is that it’s you,” he talk-sings, “and that you are standing in the doorway.” We echo his surprise – it’s anyone’s guess why he feels that way, but he’s made sure that we feel it, too.

24. Penn StationThe Felice Brothers
When I saw The Felice Brothers a couple years ago, they were all very, very drunk. I know this because they told us, and then they continued to drink onstage, and I think one of them fell over while playing?

Anyway, only a hammered group of brothers and friends who hail from the Catskills and got their start as a band playing in the New York City subway system could write folk-rock this unabashedly, recklessly joyous. Stomping, clapping, and barroom noises in the background compliment the wavering, ragged, yelped melody – “Well, I die-IIIIEEED … in Penn Station tonight, O Lord!” The song is a big tent revival of a howler, but I don’t know that the most spirited Baptist is as excited to make it to Glory as The Felice Brothers are to catch the fast train to hell.

25. Big PoppaThe Notorious B.I.G.
Now to the East Coast, where the Renaissance is in full swing, and a larger-than-life dude is partying in the club with Moët, music, and money – lots of it.

Economy is the name of the game, here (one can take a look at Genius and unpack the content herein; I, for one, agree that it’s all white devil sophistry, but make up your own mind), but I’ll leave this note: Biggie Smalls was at his effervescent best when he went for broke with hedonism, as he does in “Big Poppa.”

Fun fact: My friend Lauren (yes, you, the one reading this) used to greet me in the AOL Instant Messenger days with the question: “How you livin’, Biggie Smalls?”

“In mansions and Benzes,” I’d respond, “givin’ ends to my friends, and it feels stupendous.” I may not have a Maybach, or even an Acura with two functioning headlights, but it’s nice to dream.

26. Blank GirlDum Dum Girls
Resurrection and renewal are part and parcel with the season of spring, most notably in the story of Easter. I talked enough about atonement theory in this post that I likely never need to speak here on the subject again – although, if you’re interested in that kind of thing, I sparingly contribute my words and voice to Theologues, a modern theology website founded by my good pal Zachary Perkins and my twin brother – but I think that the purity and lustiness and beauty of restoration is always something to admire and bless.

Dee Dee Penny’s Dum Dum Girls mix the best of 1960s girl groups (I cringe to use that term and want for a better one) with Dick Dale-style surf rock-and-roll to great effect. This little big track, with chorus vocals by Penny’s husband Brandon Welchez of Crocodiles, is an ode to being young, messing up, and emerging whole from the chrysalis.

“You’ve become a new creation I don’t want to miss out on,” sings Welchez. “It’s so sweet to see you make it, on your own, from duck to swan.” The Blank Girl doesn’t need anyone’s help to spread her wings and fly away – and we finally understand that, with a wistful pang.

27. I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)The Four Tops
Can you help yourself? No, you can’t. When I was a kid, I’d wait for this track to come on the radio driving around town with my mommy on a sunny day. I can’t give a higher recommendation than that.

28. Little MascaraThe Replacements
I discovered The ‘Mats later in life than I would have liked to, which is part of what’s so exciting about someone who cares so desperately for music – there’s always an undiscovered, well-established band out there with an amazing catalogue of music just waiting to be enjoyed. I was going through a particularly difficult breakup at the time (isn’t that always the story?), read some retrospective or review or something or other, and decided to invest. What do you know? Now I can’t live without The Replacements.

Music sometimes strikes me as distinctively seasonal, and The Replacements had (have? they recently reunited! at least, the living members) a knack for tackling this unique scope and breadth of humanity in a way that lets me easily categorize their songs into four distinct spells. That’s not to say that they’re a “singles band” and not an “albums band” – they’re both. At any rate, “Little Mascara” feels like a spring twilight to me (even though the lyrics portend something else, I suppose – read ’em for yourself).

29. In The Aeroplane Over the SeaNeutral Milk Hotel
Perhaps I’ve dug myself into a hole with this classic track, which is a delight at any time, on almost any occasion – in fact, it was the song two of my closest friends chose for their first dance at their wedding. And while I didn’t introduce them to Neutral Milk Hotel, I did introduce them to one another, so I take credit for their continued union.

I’ve always been fascinated by flight: that this gigantic hunk of metal is able to soar in the air at all; that once it’s up, it wants to stay up; that the sights and wonders of being airborne are so taken for granted as to be an inconvenience to some. Maybe it’s because my first flight came rather late in life, when I was 8 or 9 years old, but soaring through the clouds I used to lie in the grass and gaze at for hours has never, and hopefully will never, become routine for me. My grandfather flew private planes – I can’t verify that he landed on a highway twice during emergencies, or that a passenger delivered a child mid-flight – and my father, a Pennsylvania State Trooper, has learned to fly since his father’s passing as the head of the organization’s aviation division. I’m never more replete with awe than those moments just after takeoff with my dad at the helm.

None of this is the point of the song; Jeff Mangum and company’s magnum opus is largely considered to be an oblique reference to the life of Anne Frank, and the bridge is a bit grotesque, but I’m always left with the idea that the possibilities of love are universal and endless – never mind a bit of time travel. How strange it is to be anything at all, indeed.

30. Disco 2000 – Pulp
It’s a complete travesty that M People won the Mercury Prize over Pulp in 1994, but the band doubled down and released the even-more-classic (I use the term “classic” far too much) Different Class just two years later – winning the Mercury Prize, hearts, souls, critical acclaim, album sales, and eventually a clever William Shatner cover.

The story is simple: Boy meets girl. Boy’s parents and girl’s parents think they’d be wonderful together. Boy and girl never get together because girl is too good for boy. Boy and girl (and her baby child) reunite years later. But never has such a tale been told in equal parts regret, wry compassion, and lasciviousness that Jarvis Cocker efforts. We never find out what happens to the storyteller and Deborah (De-bo-RAH!), but the bell hits in the closing lines of the song have to mean something, right?

31. Can You Play Drums? – Starflyer 59
“This is what you can’t explain:” says Jason Martin at the start of “Can You Play Drums.” He’s not telling you anything – he’s asking himself what his problem is. Planes, trains, and automobiles all figure into what might be Starflyer 59‘s best record, Leave Here a Stranger. Recorded in mono as an homage to Pet Sounds (see entry #10), the album grapples with the burdensome reality of being a touring career musician on a tiny music label with nothing promised and everything at stake.

The setlist quickly becomes the sole comfort: “I can’t even talk. Just kick in the rock. I already know what we’re going to play.” If it’s going to be all right for him, it’s going to be all right for us. So kick in the rock.

32. Roots Radical – Rancid
Formed out of the ashes of legendary ska-punk outfit Operation Ivy, Rancid was partially responsible for re-energizing punk rock in the mid-1990s. Unlike peers Green Day, The Offspring, and Blink-182, Rancid rarely catered to the power-pop trend that ultimately overtook the landscape like so much ivy (eh, no pun intended) against an aging brick wall, leading to the Good Charlottes and New Found Glories and Simple Plans that proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that it’s not better to burn out or fade away – it’s better to never exist in the first place.

…And Out Come the Wolves is the kind of record that labelmates like the stuffy, self-serious Bad Religion and the pleasantly aloof NOFX were utterly incapable of releasing. A high-wire act balancing the snotty nose, busted lip, and right-eye shiner of hardcore punk with lush, eminently singable melodies and easy harmonies, “Roots Radicals” (and the rest of this album) are an infected, bloody tattoo of a smiley face with missing teeth.

33. Boys and GirlsBlur
Have we appropriately covered our Britpop? Blur can do no wrong and never have. I think Tim prefers the Davey Havok treatment of the song … I disagree. Lovingly.

34. Bled WhiteElliott Smith
Another track substantial on the concept of travel, Elliott Smith’s call-and-response narrates its own internal narrative (yes, I know how idiotic that sounds). Smith was the T.S. Eliot of indie singer-songwriters: in order to completely understand his affect, one must undertake the monumental and thankless task of actually being him. That means nothing realistically to the listener; he doesn’t beg for you to understand him, but he wants you to try to follow along.

Still, who can’t grasp the ending sentiment: “I’m not f***ed, not quite”? Smith’s sense of self never overrode his inclusiveness.

35. Elephant StoneThe Stone Roses

“If you truly like music,” my friend Ronnie once said, “and if you honestly love melody and want to fully realize its effect, then your favorite album of all time should be the debut record by The Stone Roses.”

He probably wasn’t wrong. “Elephant Stone” wasn’t initially on that self-titled debut (although it was added to subsequent releases), but the kinetic freshness of that record and this single are peerless.

…All right, everyone. Time to get ready for Don Draper to become D.B. Cooper. Or something. Who knows.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for sharing. Thanks for being you.

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